Superintendent finalists field questions at Edmonds School District forum

Dr. Deborah Rumbaugh addresses the crowd gathered at Meadowdale High School.
Dr. Gustavo Balderas answers a question posed to him Monday night.










Teachers, staff and community members filled Meadowdale High School’s Great Hall Monday night to hear from the two finalists in the running to become the next superintendent of the Edmonds School District.

Dr. Gustavo Balderas, current superintendent in Eugene, Ore., and Dr. Deborah Rumbaugh, an administrator with Burien’s Highline School District,  each took a turn at the microphone, introducing themselves and then answering dozens of written questions submitted by the audience. Attendees were also given feedback forms so they could leave their observations about each candidate.

Balderas noted that he was born in Mount Vernon, Wash., the son of migrant workers from Northern Mexico who were in the area picking strawberries. His family then settled in Eastern Oregon, and he attended Oregon public schools.

“I was an English language learner as a youth,” he said.

Balderas is in his ninth year as a school superintendent, having worked at two California school districts — Madera Unified School District in Madera, and Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, before returning to Oregon in 2015 to become superintendent of Eugene School District 4J.

He got his professional start in the Hillsboro (Oregon) School District, where he served as a high school teacher and counselor, an elementary and middle school administrator, an executive director and an assistant superintendent. He served as the superintendent of two California school districts, Madera Unified School District in Madera, California, and Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, California, before returning to Oregon to assume the superintendency of Eugene School District 4J.

“The one thing that I’m really proud of is the work that we’ve done in Eugene the last few years,” Balderas said. “We been able to close the opportunity gap. Our graduation rates have increased by 14 percentage points because of the systems we’ve put in.”

In addition, Balderas said that during his tenure the school district has been able to close the opportunity gaps for Eugene children. Graduation rates have increased 19% both for children in poverty and Latino students, and by 23% for students in special programs.

Balderas was named both Oregon and U.S. Superintendent of the Year, an honor he credited to his 2,700 staff members “who work hard every day for our 17,000 kids.”

Rumbaugh lives in the Auburn area and holds the position of Instructional Leadership Executive Director with Burien-based Highline School District.

Like Balderas, she started by sharing her professional and personal background. She explained that she began her education career in the Auburn School District as a high school science teacher and then became at an assistant high school principal at Kentwood High School in the neighboring Kent School District. She moved to job as a high school principal in Highline Public Schools, where she has spent the past 10 years, later becoming Highline’s executive director of human resources and then the district’s instructional leadership executive director, where she oversees the district’s high schools and middle schools and some of the its alternative and choice programs.

A native of Tacoma, Rumbaugh said that she and her husband — also a teacher in the Auburn School District — are the parents of nine children, “all grown and gone.” Her husband grew up in the Everett/Marysville area and is excited about the prospect of moving north, she added.

Hundreds gathered in the Meadowdale High School Great Hall Monday night to hear the candidates speak. Many of those in the audience were wearing red, indicating support for the Edmonds Education Association.

The moderator was Jim Hager of Ray and Associates, the firm hired by the Edmonds School Board to conduct the search process for a new superintendent. The successful candidate will replace current Superintendent Dr. Kris McDuffy, who is retiring at the end of this school year.

Many of the written questions submitted by the audience were directed at both candidates, but a few were addresses specifically to one of them. Here’s a summary of some of those below. You can see the full interviews of both candidates via the school district’s YouTube channel.

How to improve the district’s on-time graduation rates, which are lower than some surrounding districts and are worse for underserved students such as children of color, LBGTQ and students with learning needs. The candidates were also asked whether charter schools could play a role in improving graduation rates.

Balderas said the key is to get to know every child early so staff can identify when students start to disengage, which often happens around middle school. It’s important to discover what kids are passionate about to ensure they graduate. Rather than charter schools, Balderas said he believes that public schools can offer a variety of opportunities such as “magnet school” options to keep students engaged.

“Student success hinges on students having an interest in their education” and wanting to go to school, Rumbaugh said. Increasing graduation rates begins with students having “opportunities for high engagement in the classroom,” including courses connected to pathways “where kids can begin to envision and see their future.” It’s also key to focus on social and emotional learning to ensure students feel successful, she said. As for charter schools, Rumbaugh said: “What I would hope is that students in our community would want to come to public schools because they have confidence in us, they are going to feel safe here, and they believe we are going to prepare children for their futures.”

~ ~ ~ ~

How does the district focus on equity education in its schools. The question writer used the example  of Alderwood Middle School, which offer many honors, humanities and advanced classes yet “provides zero support for students with the highest needs.”

Balderas said it’s important to determine if every student’s need is being met “and if not, why not?” Districts must ask that question and be accountable for the answers, he said. “The people with the most affluence cannot have the most influence,” he added.

Rumbaugh said she wondered whether resources were being distributed equitably across schools. “It’s really important that district leaders and business offices and union leadership have conversations around is it a one-size-fits-all allocation model across the system, or do we weight that in terms of certain schools are going to have certain needs, those needs may ebb and flow, and so we vary our allocation of resources based upon what our needs are in the system.”

~ ~ ~ ~

What do you think about disproportional discipline of students of color?

Noting it’s a problem nationwide, Balderas said it’s important to look both at best practices and the trauma that many kids bring to school with them each day. Districts need the right practices, policies and training “to ensure we are equitable with our student body,” he said.

Rumbaugh said that discipline should enhance rather than detract from the relationship between students and families, making students feel that the school system cares about them. It’s also important to review the data to get a good handle on what is happening — rather than the perception of what is happening — with disproportionate discipline in the Edmonds district, she said.

One of the questions addressed to Rumbaugh specifically was related to the Highline School District’s efforts a few years ago to limit school suspensions, leading to “tremendous high teacher turnover.” Would a similar program be implemented here, the questioner asked.

Rumbaugh responded that the issue stemmed from the district’s goal, as part of its strategic plan, to have zero student suspensions “aimed at serving our students and families in the most equitable way.” The message wasn’t communicated properly and as a result, students, families and staff were under the impression that the district “didn’t suspend students under any circumstance,” and that led to concerns about safety for students, teachers and school security staff.

“What we really wanted to ensure was that students had every opportunity across every racial demographic to be in school as often as possible,” Brumbaugh said, “and that we have a commitment to only removing students from school if there was a security and safety concern for students and other adults.”

In terms of bringing that program in Edmonds, Rumbaugh said that her job is not to come into a district to replicate programs from other districts. “My job is to come in and listen to the community, to our teachers, to our students, to every member of our staff across every department…to identify what our priorities are as a community of educators in Edmonds,” she said.

~ ~ ~ ~

What would you do in the first 100 days?

Balderas said he would focus on talking with stakeholders and assessing what’s working and what isn’t, and determining how to best support staff and the community.

While Rumbaugh didn’t get this specific question, she did note that her leadership style “is not to dig in and pound the pulpit and stomp away. It’s to go to the table — the proverbial table — as many times as necessary and to re-wrestle any issue that needs to be addressed time and time again.”

~ ~ ~ ~

What is your plan to support K-12 arts education in schools?

Balderas said it’s key to have specialists in elementary schools that guide students who are passionate about the arts and then ensure that arts program pathways are aligned for middle and high school — and that they are funded in an equitable manner districtwide.

To address arts education specifically, Rumbaugh said she it would be included as part of her efforts to develop “a robust strategic plan.” In a related question, she was asked what value she gives to “content areas” such as music and physical education. “I think all of us…have experienced times when students come to school because they have an interest or an affinity or a talent for music, P.E., athletics, arts and content areas. “It is our responsibility as educators and certainly mine as leader of the system to ensure that students have the opportunity to access all types of programming across the continuum,” she said. That may include creating music pathways from elementary through high school, or ensuring art options at the secondary level similar to what’s offered in elementary school.

~ ~ ~ ~

What program have you found to be most effective in meeting the needs of our English learners, from newcomers to long-term ELS students. 

Balderas said it’s key to have the right staff training as well as staff retention to support English learners. It’s also important for those learners to have options for credit recovery, because they often fall behind in regular coursework due to time spent in ESL classes — and can’t graduate on time.

Rumbaugh said that newcomers benefit from being able to converse initially with peers in their home language, followed by moving very quickly into speaking with English-speaking peers. Like Balderas, she said that access to basic education classes is key, stressing “high expectations, high support.”

~ ~ ~ ~

What is your plan to pass the construction bond that failed in November?

“That goes back to relationship building,” Balderas said, adding that it’s important to “tell the story of the why” the bond is needed, and how new learning spaces will support and benefit the community.

Rumbaugh said she would want to have conversations with the community about why the bond didn’t pass. It may also be helpful to ask community members about whether there is a need to restructure the bond, she added. “Do we need to go from $600 million to something that is a little more digestible, which allows us to build some trust along the way, and then be able to go for a second or third bond.”

~ ~ ~ ~

What does the inclusion of children with disabilities look and feel like to you?

“Making sure we have the least restrictive environment for kids, and that take a lot of professional development,” Balderas responded, adding he prefers a team teaching approach if a district can afford it. It is also important to have kids with disabilities mainstreamed as much as possible, he added.

Rumbaugh agreed about providing the least restrictive environment, stressing that “Inclusion is inclusion is inclusion, and regardless of a student’s academic skills and abilities, their talents and their disposition, all students are basic education students first. Period. End of sentence.”

~ ~ ~

If you could be a kitchen gadget, what would it be and why?

Balderas said he would be a plancha, a kitchen accessory that squeezes the dough in the tortilla-making process. “Why? Because I think we’re always trying to squeeze more out of education and that we have resources for,” he said. “It’s all levels of the system  — we’re trying to squeeze more, and there’s nothing left to squeeze.”

Noting that he has “about 10 years of life left in my career,” Balderas said the question is: “How do we make sure that we are doing the best we can, not only for the kids but for our staff. And how do we do that intentionally and how do we do that for what I call weeding the garden — it’s getting rid of things that really aren’t as impactful but we still do, and find out why we still do that.

“Because again, like that plancha, there’s no more masa coming out the other end,” he added.

Rumbaugh said she would be a potato peeler. “The reason for that is because I like to know what’s on the inside of people,” she said. “I like to know what their beliefs are, what they cherish, what their challenges are, what they aspire to be and what gets in the way of folks being able to achieve what they want in life. And that goes for adults as much as it does for the kids in our community.

“If we stick to the surface level and that’s the degree of our commitment to one another, we’re going to get surface-level responses,” Rumbaugh continued. “But if we dig deeper and really try to understand and care about one another, we will be far more successful.”

The school board was scheduled to hold final interviews with both finalists in a closed session Tuesday.

— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel

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